Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked tennis player, traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was supposed to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
On Thursday, he was told he would need to leave the country, following a 12-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne Airport, where he was held in a room overnight over the validity of his visa and questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam champion and one of the biggest stars in sports, to compete in the Australian Open even though he has not been vaccinated.
The chain of events represented a startling turnabout for Djokovic, who in a little more than 24 hours went from receiving special, last-minute permission to enter Australia, to boarding an intercontinental flight, to essentially being told by the prime minister of Australia that he was not welcome in the country.
The pandemic has wreaked all manner of havoc with sports during the past two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed for a year. Major events took place in empty stadiums. Star players have been sent into isolation just ahead of their competitions after testing positive for the virus.
The situation involving Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in the sport, was a match for any of them. It turned on a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players, criticized the exemption, seemingly prompting the sudden shift.